Dominic Lawson: The Conservatives should be praying to lose this election

The victim of Brown's excessive spending wouldn't be Cameron but Brown himself

Share
Related Topics

Not many parties are truly unforgettable; one of the few I can still recall is that held on 9 April 1992 at the Savoy Hotel by Conrad Black, at the time the proprietor of the Daily Telegraph. This was the night of the general election; and in the weeks leading up to it, as it seemed ever more likely that the Conservatives would lose power and Neil Kinnock would become Prime Minister, an increasing number of acceptances flowed in from Labour-supporting glitterati, anticipating the pleasure of seeing the humiliation not just of the Tories, but that of the host in particular, who would have to see them toasting the defeat of the party his newspapers supported with champagne he had paid for.

This point was made to me with undisguised delight at the beginning of the evening in question by Neil Kinnock's friend, the writer John Mortimer (who in any case never needed an excuse to drink good champagne). John was a man of outwardly sunny disposition; but I recall how his features hardened to a carapace of venomous rage as it became clear, from the first results, that the Tories were on course to win a fourth successive election.

The despondency that then enveloped Labour's supporters in the media – let alone the party itself – is hard now to imagine: Robert Harris accused the public as a whole of being "liars" and declared in his Sunday Times column that "the Labour Party, as presently constituted, will never again win an election".

Well, we all now know what happened next. Within months of the Conservatives' improbable victory in the midst of a recession, the pound sterling had been vomited out by the European Union's Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM); and since our membership of this club had been hailed by Mr Major as the sole guarantor of our economic health and future prosperity, his party's reputation for competence was shredded beyond repair.

The political execution by the electorate was deferred for five years; but long before the Tories were obliterated in the 1997 general election, the more astute among its supporters had come to the conclusion that the party's biggest misfortune had been to win the previous one. This was in part because even from July 1992 Labour's then shadow chancellor, one Gordon Brown, had been as fanatically committed to the bitter end to our membership of the ERM as had Mr Major. Had Labour won the 1992 election, the economic circumstances which trashed both the currency and the occupants of Downing Street would have had exactly the same effect on a Kinnock administration.

In some ways, it might even have been worse for a Labour Government: since the party's reputation for economic competence was shaky in the first place, it would have dramatically reinforced the innate scepticism of the public about Labour's basic reliability.

So as David Cameron's Tories begin to show signs of panic at their recent falls in the opinion polls – one published this weekend had its lead over Labour cut to six points – I offer these memories to them by way of consolation and comfort. Of course, the Tory leadership desperately wants to win the general election this May (and are still favourites to do so); but they should also recognise that, in narrowly political terms, victory would do the Labour party no favours.

When James Purnell, one of the brightest of the Blairites, declared last week that he would not fight his seat at the general election, I wondered if his inner argument was not along these lines: that although it would be unpleasant to lose the election, he could still less bear to contemplate the thought of being a Labour Member of Parliament with Gordon Brown remaining Prime Minister, and party leader, after 6 May.

Leave aside the prospect of more years under the command of such a morbid misanthrope as Mr Brown (and it is this, rather than the Prime Minister's alleged bullying, which fills his colleagues with such despair); what is the political and economic inheritance which the Labour government would bequeath to its reconstituted self? The scene would be something like the end of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, when Kurtz in a sudden moment of realisation declares: "The Horror! The Horror!"

The victim of the former rugby-playing Prime Minister's hospital pass – as he has both shattered the country's finances while also making further commitments which can not possibly be afforded– would not be David Cameron, but himself. It would be Gordon Brown, Mr Public Investment, who would have to cut state expenditure on a scale which has never before been done in this country – a guarantee of vicious internecine conflict between the Labour Party and its main financial backers, the public-sector trade unions; either that or face such a buyers' strike on the part of international investors in Britain's vast debt as would require the final humiliation of a second Labour Government having to throw itself on the not so tender mercies of the International Monetary Fund.

David Cameron has no particular bragging rights in this matter; he it was who, before the credit crunch, had committed the Conservative Party to continue Labour's bizarrely counter-cyclical public expenditure policies, which have left the country with a colossal structural deficit quite distinct from the temporary problems of a recession. So when George Osborne routinely accuses Mr Brown of having "not fixed the roof while the sun was shining", we should recall that the Conservative Party's policy was precisely a commitment not to fix the same roof while that same sun was shining.

Still, as the events following the summer of 1992 demonstrate, there is little justice in politics; just as the then opposition politician Mr Brown was able to benefit from the collapse of a government economic policy which he had uncritically supported, so Mr Cameron has reason to hope to profit from the disintegration of a strategy to which he offered no criticism at the time.

Most likely, enough voters will be so desperate to see the back of Gordon Brown – the width and depth of the popular dislike of the Prime Minister inspires pollsters with awe – that David Cameron and George Osborne will get their chance to try to sort out the mess; yet there would also be a kind of macabre justice in the prospect of seeing a re-elected Labour Government split asunder against the fiscal rocks on to which it has steered the ship of state.

This is not completely improbable, given the peculiar bias of the electoral system, at least as it has operated against the Tories in recent elections. Remember also that, even if the Tories were to be the biggest party in a hung parliament after 6 May, that would not give Cameron the immediate right to try to form a government. The incumbent Prime Minister is constitutionally entitled to make such an attempt himself: that was what Ted Heath did in February 1974, with his admittedly futile effort to persuade the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, to support a Conservative Party which had fewer Parliamentary seats than Labour.

Just for a moment, try to imagine what a 2010 Lib-Lab government would be like; imagine, for example, the relationship between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Vince Cable, who had derisively mocked him as a man morphing from "Stalin to Mr Bean". Such a pantomime horse of an administration would make the current one look harmonious; and who then would be the political beneficiary?

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Israeli army soldiers take their positions  

Errors and Omissions: Some news reports don’t quite hit the right target

Guy Keleny
A wedding cake with statuettes of two men is seen during the demonstration  

Cakegate leaves a funny taste. Is this really the way for gay campaigners to fight for tolerance?

Janet Street-Porter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice